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Activity 12 - Eugenics and false science


To develop an understanding of how scientific methods can be misused to achieve social objectives.

Curriculum area(s)

  • Year 7 upwards
    • Science/False science
    • PHSE
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
    • Politics

NB teachers

Teachers: read Teachers' background notes on eugenics before attempting these activities.

Suitable for adults with learning disabilities?


Learning outcome(s)

Understand that scientists should always try to disprove their intuitive position and what happens when they do not.

Time required

Double lesson



  1. Record and discuss diversity in the class: pigment, eye and hair colour and height.
  2. Discuss what shapes us in terms of genetics and environmental factors.
  3. Introduce Eugenics and and some of the false scientific methods used to prove eugenicist social and moral attitudes.
  4. Kallikak work sheet. Work on in groups and discuss when complete.
  5. Draw out other consequences of the false science encouraged by Eugenics.

Ideas for follow up

  1. Start with Pictorial Tests used for Army Recruits and Immigrants to the USA. Reproduce copies of tests. Focus after completion on what were the biases in these tests for people with different cultural, educational, ethnic and geographic backgrounds and why any conclusions drawn from them might be false.
  1. Test the class on the Mental Deficiency Serial Tests and work out their supposed IQ under this test.

Note to teachers: Please make it clear to students that they are not actually being ‘tested’ in this activity! The aim of the activity is for students to reflect on how problematic and biased the tests are. They are under no pressure to try and get the answers ‘right’.

You will need to provide some of the items listed with a ‘*’ in the resource so the test can be carried out. Split the class into pairs. You will need a test instrument for each pair. One is the subject and the other the investigator. After completing, get students in pairs, then tables and finally the whole class to discuss the test and what it is actually measuring and what biases may creep in.

  1. Reflect on the power of these tests under the Mental Deficiency Act where such tests were used from 1913 to 1959 to determine the lives of people with learning disabilities, i.e. whether they could live in the community ‘on license’ or whether they would be sent to institutions.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

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